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Jamaica gets earthquake-resilience boost

Published:Thursday | October 20, 2016 | 10:00 AM

With Jamaica at perennial risk of a devastating tremor, the Earthquake Unit is to improve the island's planning capabilities for a big event.

This is through the installation of 40 accelerometers - used to measure seismic energy - at schools and hospitals, among other key public buildings, across the island.

An additional nine accelerometers are also to be installed at seismic stations currently operated by the unit.

"At the moment, we have a network of 17," said Professor Simon Mitchell, acting head of the Earthquake Unit and head of the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

The extra 49 are being put in through the Disaster Vulnerability Reduction Project, funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Jamaica Social Investment Fund.

Data collected from the accelerometers can, among other things, be used to inform the island's building code, which requires periodic updating to ensure Jamaica's developments are on par with international standards and in line with its needs, given the risk of natural disasters.

"If we find out that a school is not safe, we can actually go in and retrofit it, and it speaks to the building code. We want to be able to inform as much as possible what will happen," Mitchell noted.

"One day, this will also help with things like insurance. They will show that your building is safe and you will get a break on insurance," he predicted.

Jamaica currently experiences 200 or so tremors annually - about half of which originate locally and the others regionally.

"Locally means they are directly in Jamaica or in our waters. Regionally is in terms of the Caribbean," Mitchell explained.

Of the 200, up to 14 are felt events and measure up to three on the Richter scale.

At the same time, Jamaica shares the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault that ruptured to cause the devastation in Haiti six years ago, leaving some 250,000 people dead.

PORT ROYAL QUAKE

The island has, too, experienced earthquakes similar to that experienced in the French-speaking country - in 1692 and 1907. The earlier event destroyed Port Royal while the other cost the lives of 1,000 people in Kingston.

"The 1907 Mw [moment magnitude] 6.5 earthquake occurred when Kingston's population was only 50,000 and resulted in 1,000 deaths. In the past century, no significant earthquake has occurred in Kingston and, meanwhile, the metropolitan population has swelled to nearly a million people. Thus, future earthquakes here could cause significant destruction and loss of life," former head of the Earthquake Unit, Dr Lyndon Brown, noted in a 2011 paper he co-authored with researchers from the University of Texas.

The paper was titled 'Assessing geohazards near Kingston, Jamaica: Initial results from chirp profiling'.

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